As I’ve walked through the last few years where so many of the fault lines running through our society have been brought to the surface and exposed, I’ve committed to having hard conversations, to sitting down with people I don’t agree with and listening to their point of view, to fostering true communication between people wherever I can. However this commitment has come with a hidden pitfall that I’ve only recently begun to understand, and it has to do with people who assume that I owe them a conversation. I’ve even had it thrown in my face that I said I was committed to hard conversations and so on, therefore I have to talk to them. And thinking I had to be true to my commitment I would often engage, only to be attacked and railed against, had my own perceived statements and identity held up to what I was saying in the moment as though they had a right to pit me against the version of me in their head.
And I’ve felt like I couldn’t withdraw or somehow I’d be proving them right. It’s a toxic trap. It’s pseudo-communication because true communication is a respectful exchange of ideas and working for understanding. True communication is not a series of attacks, verbal traps, and “gotcha” moments.
Other markers of this type of communication are an unwillingness to allow you to frame the conversation in any way, shutting down, interrupting, questioning facts you present, while presenting facts of their own in a breezy carefree way as though they are infallible facts and all the burden of proof is on you to disprove it. Something you are never ever allowed to try yourself though.
And then there’s the way they define you in their own minds, and try to make you debate your values and defend your identity. That is particularly insidious and can leave you trying to remind yourself of who you are in the midst of and after the encounter, feeling like you need to redefine yourself and your boundaries.
The thing is this kind of person will never respect your boundaries, will never agree to an equitable conversation, will always be seeking to attack and wear you down. The motivations behind this type of behavior can be many on the surface, but they all have the same result. And the origin is often the same, a toxic-masculine upholding of the patriarchy. And yes, sometimes it’s women doing this, but that doesn’t change the origin of this type of false communication.
You do not have to have this conversation. Say what you need to say and if it’s not respected, when it becomes clear that this person is there to argue endlessly, just say, “I have nothing to prove to you,” and walk away.
I finally watched Captain Marvel the other night and several of these things finally solidified to me in a way that was somehow clearer than before. Like many epiphanies, this one had been coming on for a while, but the movie–the first female led, written, and directed in the Marvel universe–solidified it for me. Here are some of the key moments:
Jude Law’s character early on in the movie tells Brie Larson’s character, Carol: “I want you to be the best version of yourself.” But the insidiousness behind this lie is that the best version of you is defined by them. And this them is often a man in your life, surprisingly often one that has no business making this assumption, one who has no business being in your inner circle. It’s even harder to recognize when it does come from someone who should be close to you, a parent or other relative or a significant other.
“What was given can be taken away.” This lie is that somehow the gifts of the woman are given to her by an authority figure instead of emanating from the woman herself. The patriarchy disguises itself as benevolent, dispatching gifts or rights and so on that were never its to hand out in the first place. This lie keeps us fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.
Jude Law: This casting is brilliant. Based on what we are led to believe, he enters as good-guy, mentor etc. However, I doubted him when he told Carol that her emotions were a handicap, that anger only serves the enemy. I didn’t know how the movie was going to be written though, so I wasn’t sure that this was a signal in the movie as it should be in real life. It was an indescribable relief to realize that they’d actually done it right in the movie, that this was signaling an untrustworthy character.
Vers: They gave her a name that was a tiny part of her identity and insisted that this is who she was, that’s all she was, and there was never any more.
Law’s character spinning the story of Mar-Vell: “That sounds like a Skrull simulation. Stop. Remember your training. Know your enemy. It could be you. Do not let your emotions override your judgement.” In other words, you can’t trust yourself or your memories, or your emotions. You need to listen to me in order to make sense of your own life. That whole bit was followed up with “We’ll get to the bottom of this, together.” As in I’m the only one you can trust to find the truth and I’m on your side. Again, a lie veiled in affection, or regard, or respect even, but in reality, it’s none of those things.
Carol starts to reclaim her power when her friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) speaks the truth of her identity to her. This is the function of true friends, to call us back to ourselves, and the person they see, because that kind of seeing calls us to be more truly ourselves.
“That’s my blood coursing through her veins.” And he (Law) says that as if that somehow give hims ownership of her and her power. “I made you the best version of yourself.” “What’s given, can be taken away.”
“Without us, you’re weak, you’re flawed, helpless. We saved you.” Anyone who speaks these words or any version is trying to control you and you’re better off without them in your life.
“I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back, but what happens when I’m finally set free?” She realizes that the thing that supposedly gave her the powers has actually been dampening them down. Trying to converse with people within the structures they set when they refuse to allow you input into those structures is fighting with one arm behind your back. Own your power, free yourself from those engagements, and go do something worth your while.
“Can you keep your emotions in check long enough to take me on? This is that moment!” Law’s character tries to set the boundaries of the engagement. She’s just blown up a freaking spaceship by flying through it, and yet he tries to convince her that his judgement is still what matter, she’s not enough until she measures up to his standard. This will absolutely happen over and over again as you try to truly become yourself. To that person, to those people, it will literally never matter how much you’ve accomplished or how powerful you are, they will always try to keep you subverted by getting you to believe that their measurement of you is what matters. I’m so used to entertainment propping up the lies of the patriarchy that my heart sank. I was sure they were about to show me a long drawn-out battle scene where she ultimately wins, but is dragged down and bloodied etc. It was again an immeasurable relief when she blasts him across the desert and delivers this amazing next line.
“I have nothing to prove to you.” And she looks at him as though he is the small pathetic being he always was. Whining about not going back empty-handed. As though after all that, she still owes him something. When he loses his control, he still tries to manipulate her by playing on her sympathy. These people will literally never quit, you can only claim your power and keep it by ending the interaction. It probably won’t be as spectacular as firing them off the planet in a space ship, but it can be as emotionally satisfying.
And while I’ve framed this in the context of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, that’s just because that’s where many of us will encounter this type of relentless conversation. As part of toxic masculinity, men can find themselves on the receiving end of this type of interaction as well, it’s just that many more women will be in that position and far more often. It can also just come from toxic people, so women could deliver the same kind of doubt and so forth to their victims, just again, women are more likely to be on the receiving end of this type of behavior and communication than men are.
Bullies and despots are always afraid of their victims learning to stand in their power and banding together. And that’s all the patriarchy is: a network of men so weak they cheat and bully to stay in power because deep down they know nothing they stand for is legitimate enough for them to stay in power without cheating. And by weak I mean a poverty of spirit because strong people—truly strong people—lift up those around them and don’t operate on an economy of scarcity because they know there’s room for everyone to thrive.
The other thing I thought this movie did really well was play against stereotypes and make you examine your prejudices. The handsome white man was the untrustworthy and manipulative bad guy. While the Skrulls, who are given a dodgy-sounding name, who are green and can shape-shift–all of which are things we’ve been taught to distrust in these types of films–and yet they turn out to be the persecuted minority. Their snarls are of desperation, their only goal is to save their families and find a place they can be safe, and for this they are hunted by the majority government of that world.
They even cast Ben Mendellsohn, known for playing villains, to play Talos, the Skrull general, yet another misdirection to make you question your prejudice.
So while they still cast a thin, blonde, white woman as the main character, this movie made several good steps, big steps even, toward showing us a better society. And yes, it’s “just” a movie, but art reflects life and life reflects art in a never ending back and forth, so art is always saying something about who we are, and showing us something we can be. A world where women claim their power and speak power to each other and a world where we examine our assumptions, dismantle our prejudices, and realize that the story we’ve been told all along may not always be the truth.
Note: as to the terms “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy,” I believe I’ve stayed fairly mainstream in their usage here. Toxic masculinity is damaging to everyone as it inhibits all of our abilities to thrive and live into who we truly are by casting limiting roles and narrow definitions on infinitely complex, diverse, and beautiful humans.
There’s been much written about these terms that informed my use, if you are unfamiliar with it, I invite you to use google and do some reading. If you come here on my page or on my wall and want to take issue with my use of these terms, then I’ve got nothing to prove to you. 😉